Echoes of a real-life case mean this new spy drama packs
one heck of a punch
In August 2010 the body of Gareth Williams was found naked, stuffed in to a padlocked sports bag, in the bath of his London flat. Williams, who worked for GCHQ, was working on secondment for MI6: he was a spy. Two years later a coroner said it was ‘highly likely’ Williams was unlawfully killed; the year after that the Metropolitan police said his death was probably an accident.
These are the kind of contradictory conclusions that foment speculation, including a claim just over a month ago from a former KGB agent that Williams was killed by Russia ‘for refusing to become a double agent’. But then Williams’ death had already been the subject of rampant innuendo: the police had released details of some bondage websites he had visited. He was gay. He was intensely private. “MURDERED MI6 worker was a secret transvestite who may have been killed by a gay lover,” was a typically euphoric headline.
Like many others, Tom Rob Smith, the author of the international bestseller Child 44, had been following the Williams case as he developed what would become his first TV series, a contemporary spy thriller called London Spy. What interested Rob Smith was not the facts of the case but the whispers that arose in their absence.
“I’m careful about going in to it in too much detail,” he says, lending proceedings a befitting piquancy, “but I was caught by the way in which you had a death and then suddenly we were all talking about the fact of whether he was interested in dressing up in women’s clothes. I don’t know what happened to Gareth Williams at all but from a conceptual point of view I was caught by this sense that the world will run with other stories if you present those stories to the public because our brains work in that way. Suddenly we were talking about whether he was in to this sexual practice or that sexual practice – the question of ‘Was he killed or not?’ fell in to the background.”
Though Rob Smith stresses that the Williams case was merely one of several seeds for London Spy, the parallels are hard to overlook. London Spy stars Ben Whishaw as Danny, a naif hedonist who exits a Vauxhall club one morning only to bump, literally, in to Alex (Edward Holcroft), going for a run across Lambeth Bridge. The MI6 building looms symbolically in the background: Alex is a brilliant, introverted young spy, though he doesn’t tell Danny that. They fall in love – episode one is a tender portrait of unexpected romance right up to the point at which Alex suddenly disappears. Then we are launched in to a Hitchcockian thriller (it was directed by Jakob Vergruggen, who was in charge of the eually tense first series of The Fall) as Danny spends the rest of the series trying to find out what has happened to Alex. Both Danny and the viewer become immersed in a world of establishment espionage we can barely discern, let alone understand.
“It’s sort of an Alice in Wonderland story,” says Whishaw. “Danny has to revaluate his experience in the light of what everyone’s telling him, which is that he knew nothing about who this person was in fact, when he believed them to be the love of his life.”
Danny’s adventures in Wonderland bring him in to contact with what Whishaw calls, “the shocking brutality of faceless power protecting itself. So that it continues to be powerful. But completely unaccountable to anybody so it cannot be exposed.”
Does Whishaw believe these faceless powers exist in Britain today? He pauses.
“I think hopefully you’ll believe that this stuff is going on. And I think it is going on.”
On the day I spoke to him Whishaw had been filming in a yew-hedge maze.
“Yeah, you could say that was a metaphor. But for Danny it’s horrific. His battle is to try and hold on to what he felt was the truth even though everyone’s telling him it’s not the truth. And he’s implicated in the death: it’s all made out to be something very sordid and horrible.”
Danny finds Alex’s body in a bag, in what appears to be a secret S&M chamber, complete with tools. The manner of the death again comes from Rob Smith’s research. He read a CIA handbook written in the 60s, a real document, which included a subsection talking about the best way to assassinate someone.
“The best way to assassinate someone,” Rob Smith says matter of factly as we talk over coffee a few months later, “is to build a staged accident in to the fabric of their live. So if they’re an alcoholic, you kill them with alcohol. If they have 50 speeding tickets you kill someone as if they were driving too fast. If someone has a problem eating too much you have them choke on their food. And people will believe it because it seems consistent with their lives. The truth is that all of us have stuff in our lives that you could build a story around.”
Part of the story of London Spy comes from Rob Smith’s own life. He was born in 1979 to a Swedish mother and an English father.
“I grew up being gay and having all kinds of issues about coming out,” he says. “But I also went through the Aids crisis and in my head sex and death are sort of fused together, sort of welded. What’s interesting about this form of death is that in a lot of people’s heads, I think, particularly with gay sex, there’s the thought that somehow it leads to death. I know when I came out to my mum it was manifested as a sadness – she was worried that I would get Aids and so in her head it was fused as well. It wasn’t necessarily a moral point of view. It was more a fear that she wouldn’t have a child and so on.”
When Rob Smith was confronted with the Gareth Williams case he recognized a similar pattern.
“What happens is we have this poor dead kid, suddenly we come face to face with it and we’ve said, ‘Oh, it’s sex.’ And in the back of our head we kind of know that leads to death. That’s what I’m interested in.”
From The Sunday Times Culture Magazine